The question “Why are we learning this?” is not a rare one in most teachers’ classrooms. We might find it arising less frequently in the future if we make “playing with knowledge” a higher priority in our instructional efforts.

Think about the last thing you learned “for yourself,” meaning not a work-related or formal school objective. Maybe it was cooking, or a new hobby, or something else. Chances are, you immersed yourself in doing this new activity, read lots about it (including Wikipedia), watched YouTube videos, maybe had some mentors or friends who you consulted as experts. It may not have felt like “learning” but in reality it probably was. This is because of the playful approach to it, “This is something fun that I enjoy and want to get better at.”

In his TED talks, Tony Wagner talks about the role of play as a stepping stone to passion, and then purpose. By fostering engagement through play, young people eventually discover a true passion, which can then turn to purpose.

Play can also foster pathways for young people to safely explore risks and taking chances. In an inspiring article about a different kind of playground in England where kids build forts with old wood and metal, light their own fires, and generally play with limited adult supervision. The Atlantic draws some powerful research together about what kids can learn by taking risks. The research points to deep social-emotional growth (aka the “soft skills” that are in demand by companies and lamented as being absent from high school graduates). Interestingly, some schools like Gulliver Tulley’s Tinkering School advocate for letting little kids use power tools and play with fire.

Lastly, part of play as an educational tool, is in blurring the lines between imagination, reality and experiencing new things. Play doesn’t always have to look exactly like recess. In fact daydreaming is another method that is encouraged to allow for deep neurological connections to be made and for ideas and information to be processed. Neuroscience research, highlighted in a recent New Yorker article points to the importance of allowing kids brains to be able to wander and process what they have observed, seen, and done during the course of a day.

It is import to take knowledge out from an educational setting and making it work beyond that setting. It is exophoric. Playing is about as real as education gets, albeit not as endemically real as the unconscious applications that are of the lifeworld itself. Playing with knowledge can occur in two ways:

  • Playing Appropriately
      means knowledge is acted upon or realised in a predictable or typical way in a specific context. Such action could be taken to meet normal expectations in a particular situation, for instance: objects are used in the way they are supposed to be, or meanings are represented in a way which conforms to the generic conventions of a semiotic or meaning-making setting. Never does Playing Appropriately involve exact replication or precise reproduction. It always involves some measure of transformation, reinventing or revoicing the world in a way which, ever-so-subtly perhaps, has never occurred before. Playing Appropriately entails the application of knowledge and understandings to the complex diversity of real world situations and testing their validity. By these means, learners do something in a predictable and expected way in a ‘real world’ situation or a situation that simulates the ‘real world’. This brings learners back to the world of experienced, but a world into which they have transferred understandings developed in other Knowledge Processes.
  • Playing Creatively
      means knowledge and capabilities is taken from one setting and adapted to quite a different setting—a place far from the one from which that knowledge or capabilities originated, and perhaps a setting unfamiliar to the learner. In this process, learners take an aspect of knowledge or meaning out of its familiar context and make it work—differently perhaps—somewhere else. This kind of transformation may result in imaginative originality, creative divergence or hybrid recombinations and juxtapositions which generate novel meanings and situations. Playing Creatively involves making an intervention in the world which is truly innovative and creative and which brings to bear the learner’s interests, experiences and aspirations. This is a process of making the world anew with fresh and creative forms of action and perception. Now learners do something that expresses or affects the world in new way, or transfers their newly acquired knowledge into a new setting.